The Enemies in the Psalms (Student Question)

Occasionally I post responses to questions I receive from my students or other readers. Here’s my answer to a question that came by email recently.

Student Question: When David is lamenting his pursuers and the dangers he’s facing, are we to interpret those only as human enemies, or can we apply the idea to the workings of the devil and the pursuing nature of sin? I’ve found it difficult to relate to certain psalms if I’m trying to directly apply them, but I’ve been wary of treating the “enemies” as a principle and a symbol for things in my own life.

That’s a great question. In the West (at least in the past), I think many Psalms readers have likely struggled to feel the same thing David feels about his enemies, because we often haven’t faced the kind of personal pursuit and persecution he so often faced. I think that’s been changing for the past number of years in the West and will continue to increase, but we still don’t see what David saw in terms of personal opposition. But the opposition to God and to the truth and to the gospel we hold dear is absolutely fierce.

As for David, he ultimately saw himself as God’s representative king. He was chosen to be king from a young age, and even though he didn’t ascend to the throne until many years later, he was still God’s chosen one throughout his adult lifetime. So part of how he sees his “enemies” in the psalms is as God’s enemies. They stand against God’s anointed one; therefore they stand against God. In fact, sometimes they stand against God’s anointed one because they stand against God.

Psalms 1-2 function as the introduction to the Psalter as a whole, and Psalm 2 really sets the tone of how God’s enemies oppose both God and his anointed king. I think we should interpret the enemy language in this way: not mainly personal enemies but enemies of God, enemies of God’s king, and enemies of God’s just and righteous purposes in the world.

In that sense, all sin and wickedness — both personal and systemic — are God’s enemies rising up against his rule. After all, you can’t separate sin from people. It’s not the material world that sins, but people who sin. In that sense, sinners are the embodiment of sin, and sin is the explanatory principle for what we as sinners are doing when we sin. The two are tied together.

So what should we do? We should join Jesus, David’s greater son, in hating sin, mourning sin, and fighting sin, and we should aggressively cooperate with his ongoing redemptive work in our lives by stamping out sin in our own hearts and in our areas of influence.

Overall, I would want to be careful, like you, to interpret the enemies David speaks of as actual people who are opposing him. But as we move out into more of a biblical theology perspective with the overall narrative of the Bible and the overall message of the Psalms in view, we should absolutely see another layer to these enemies: they embody cosmic opposition to God, his chosen king, and his good purposes for the world. And that’s just the kind of darkness we should rage against.

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